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Florence Cole as a child

Preparing for Christmas
in the early 20th century

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When I was a child in the early 1900s, Christmas was a big event. So preparations began some weeks beforehand. A lot had to be done. There were no ready-meals in the shops, and no fridges. Families had to make their own Christmas specialities.

  

Making Christmas puddings, Edwardian and Victorian style

Christmas pudding thumbnail

My brothers and I had to help my mother with the ingredients for making the Christmas puddings. We had to stone the raisins, for which we needed a basin of hot water. Then with a finger and thumb we would open a raisin onto a large plate, pick out the stone and rinse it off in the hot water. Then we would go on to the next raisin.

Skinning almonds

We also had to take the skins off the almonds, which was called blanching them, and involved putting the almonds into a bowl and pouring on boiling water. After a few minutes, the skin would just slide off between our fingers. If the water was still too hot, we burnt our fingers, but if we let it cool too much, the skins wouldn't slide off.

Slicing candied peel

We also had to slice the candied peel. This came from the shop as halves of candied oranges, lemons and grapefruit which had thick coatings of sugar on the outside and lumps of sugar in the centres that we loved to eat.

The alcohol and threepenny bits in the Christmas puddings

I never heard of anyone putting brandy into Christmas puddings. Perhaps it was too expensive. The puddings were mixed with porter which was a kind of beer.

threepenny bit for Christmas puddings

A few silver threepenny pieces were added with the dried fruit. These were made of silver, so supposedly didn't taint the pudding, but you could jar your teeth badly on them if you weren't careful.

Traditions when making a Christmas pudding

History books are not always right!

Although my mother specifically states that the Christmas puddings were boiled in china basins in a large pan, magazines and TV programmes invariably say that they were tied in cloth and boiled in the copper. I suspect that both practices may have been in use, as my mother has never yet been proved wrong in her recollections. However I certainly can't imagine her mother wanting to contaminate her washing with a copper that had had greasy cooking water in it. Coppers could not easily be washed out like today's basins as they had no drain.

Similarly the accepted wisdom seems to be that brandy was mixed into the pudding, although my mother specifically states that porter beer was used by all the people she knew. Perhaps this was a difference between the large houses and the working classes.

Pat Cryer, webmaster
and daughter of the author

When my mother had mixed all the ingredients for the Christ­mas pudding together, everyone in the family had a stir for luck. This was a convention followed by all the families I knew. My mother would then let the mixed ingredients stand overnight to blend the flavours. Then next morning she put the mixture into china basins, covered them and boiled them in a large pan for eight hours. She had to top up the pan with water from time to time to prevent it from boiling dry.

Why three Christmas puddings

My mother always made three Christmas puddings because they would keep for months. She said that this was also what her own mother used to do in Victorian times. One pudding was specifically for my father's birthday in July. As she needed a very large mixing bowl, she used the basin from our decorated china jug and basin set. This was intended for hot water for guests who washed upstairs, but most people, including guests, washed downstairs in the scullery. My father used the jug for making his homemade wine.

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Making Christmas pickles 1900s style

Also some weeks in advance, my mother would cut up red cabbage and put it into jars of vinegar. She would also pickle green walnuts by putting them into jars of vinegar; and she would make mincemeat. I sometimes helped.

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Making salt beef

salt beef

Salt beef - more pink and flaky than ordinary beef

About a week before Christmas my mother would make salt beef ready for supper on Christmas night. This was a way of preserving the meat.

For the salt beef she would buy a piece of beef brisket and put it into brine for a few days, then cook it in water with a few pepper corns added for flavour. When cold she would press it into a tin, put a plate on top and then a weight.

To serve, it was turned out onto a plate and sliced. The slices looked pinker and paler than roast beef slices, but it was tender and pleasant to eat.

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Making brawn 1900s style

brawn

Brawn - lumps of meat preserved in jelly

Also about a week before Christmas my mother would make brawn - which was a way of preserving pieces of cold meat set in jelly.

She would buy half a pig's head and trotters and a leg of beef and boil them all together in a little water. When they were cooked, she would cut them up into pieces and put them into a large basin with some of the water. All this set solid when cold. I don't think gelatine was used. The meat juices themselves produced the jelly. To serve, it was turned out onto a plate and cut into wedges.

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Making sweets 1900s style

turkish delight sweets

Turkish delight sweets

My father always made coconut turkish delight for Christmas, but I don't know how he did it or whether it was usual practice for a man to make sweets.

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Making Christmas cards 1900s style

   

Old 1914 Christmas card for the troops in World War One

A poignant home-made 1914 Christmas card for the soldiers at the front in World War One, looking forward to the sunrise of better times to come in 1915. If only that had been true.

Although there is nothing in my mother's written recollections about making Christmas cards, I am sure it must have happened, and I feel that this 1914 Christmas card is so poignant as to merit a place here. The original is held in the family of Anne Davey.

Pat Cryer
webmaster and daughter of the author

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Making Christmas decorations 1900s style

paper chains

We children would make paper chains with lengths of coloured paper stuck together with paste made from flour and water.

early 1900s school christmas tree

The school hall of Silver Street School, no doubt decorated by the children. Photo courtesy of Simon Benbow.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

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